Young people, social media, and anxiety - what we can do to help
Stress and anxiety have always been features of people’s lives, but some are suggesting that currently we are in the grip of an anxiety epidemic. In fact, according to Cambridge University, eight million of us are dealing with some kind of anxiety disorder - many of those teenagers or young people. So what is going on and, importantly, what can we do to help?
A new study has found that young people who spend seven hours or more on screens (outside of study/work) are twice as like than some of their counterparts to suffer from anxiety. This was even more true for teenagers. The pressure that social media brings, and its effect on self-esteem, is partly to blame. The unrealistic expectations and the judgemental comments that often go with them leave those who are most vulnerable feeling alone and unworthy.
What can help?
Due to how addictive screen time can be, simply taking the screen away and going cold turkey isn’t necessarily the answer - in fact, in the short term at least, this could heighten feelings of anxiety. Instead, it needs to be a combined approach that identifies the most 'harmful' sites or usage, and specifically limits access to it, at the same time working on self-esteem and importantly replacing the 'pay off' of the screen time with something more healthy. It may be a gradual process, but one in which the individual ceases to rely on their screen to get what they think they need in life.
I don’t mean to spoil anybody’s fun here, but the clue is in the title. What might have started out as a bored kid courting some extra attention by showing off what toys they got for Christmas has turned into a multi-million-pound advertising playground. Whereas with previous generations the adverts stayed in the ad breaks, they have now, in many cases, become the content, and often the presenter in some way becomes the product. It's a high-impact, addictive device, but what it isn’t is real. In fact, psychologists are claiming that influencer culture promotes a false sense of what everyone else is doing, and that it can have a negative effect on mental health and well-being.
What can we do to lessen the impact?
Firstly, identifying particular triggers that cause the greatest response and, again, limiting exposure to those particular stimuli. It is important to understand here that the uncomfortable feeling which might accompany this, to begin with, is actually a sign that it is a positive thing to take it away. Identifying beliefs about any particular influencer and gaining an understanding of what is and isn’t true can also be useful. These people often have a whole team around them, and gaining an understanding that this isn’t their 'real' thoughts or genuine day to day life can help remove the fantasy of what we thought they were. It is also worth looking into what was so attractive about it in the first place. It's fine to have aspirations and it's good to have ambition, so replacing that element with something in real life that might help the person achieve their goals can be a really positive thing.
‘Experts’ who aren’t experts
It seems anyone with an Instagram account can become an expert on whatever they like, so long as they themselves have experienced it once and post about it enough times. Though influencers can be detrimental overall, as they are often backed by big business, they (usually) have to play by some sort of rules. Self-professed experts, however, can claim whatever they like. This can be a dangerous world where truth and fact become blurred. Particular areas to watch out for are those advising on eating disorders, certain areas of mental health such as self-harm or suicidal thoughts, and even particular areas of relationship advice and health. Although, in themselves, these people may actually be trying to 'help', the online discussions and the encouragement to carry out negative behaviour that accompany them can be extremely harmful.
How can we turn this around?
One good thing is that the person who is listening to these 'experts' and those around them wants information and wants help. This can be a really positive thing. Although it may be frightening to see happening, instead of reacting in a negative way, it can be better to acknowledge their need for information. Encourage them to explore what credentials the person they have been engaging with has, and also discuss what 'advice' may have been given by others. In doing so, you will be able to uncover what beliefs might have formed in the process, and explore whether they are helpful, or indeed, true. From here, discovering what the person really wants and providing a healthier pathway for them to achieve this may be enough to move them from the negative behaviour to something that will genuinely help.
Bullying has probably been around since the first humans (or at least children) have. It's a painful and destructive type of behaviour that absolutely nobody benefits from in the long term. The problem with bullying now is that it has, through social media, been able to infiltrate every part of the victim’s life. It can feel incredibly hard to escape from and it is understandably distressing. If you add to that the fact that online, unfortunately, people are seemingly even more cruel than in real life, it can be a genuine source of anxiety for many young people.
What to do about the bullies
First of all, begin to recognise that the cause of the bullying isn’t actually about the victim, or their haircut or their clothes - it is actually about the bully and their insecurities. There is no genuinely happy and contented person on this earth who goes around ripping apart other people. Secondly, we need to understand that, as this behaviour is illogical and misjudged, however unfair, we cannot give it any validity in our minds. To believe it would be to give it weight. It is an important step to understand that these are empty comments designed to provoke a reaction - they are in no way true.
On the practical side, this means that we need to stop engaging with them. Though it may be hard, we need to block them out and, if at all possible, report the perpetrator - however counter-productive that may feel to the person being bullied. Then it is over to us. We need to build resilience and confidence, and this might take professional help. It can work, though. Once the bully no longer has an effect, they tend to lose interest. In the meantime, the victim stops feeling and behaving like a victim and instead gains a strong, positive outlook. It can also be useful to note that, online, virtually every well-known person we might genuinely admire will probably be on the end of somebody’s negativity. It's a hard fact of current life, one that hopefully will fade once the tech giants have finally caught up. In the meantime, we need to find ways to stand tall and be proud of who we are.
Although there may not be a bag filled with quick fixes, the challenges of anxiety linked to social media can be dealt with and a positive outcome found. If there is someone around you who is struggling, encourage them to get the help they deserve. It can open up a whole new world of possibilities.